The United States will face Japan in baseball’s first Olympic gold-medal game in 13 years after defeating defending champions South Korea 7-2 with a barrage of sixth-inning singles on Thursday.
The title match-up will, for the first time, feature the two most populous baseball-rabid countries, cementing shifts since the sport last appeared in the Olympics in 2008.
Three-time gold medalists, Cuba has lost star power to other countries, failing to make the six-team Games tournament, while Japan has grown ever stronger and the United States found new hunger by adding veterans with nothing to lose to a roster of minor leaguers.
Japan beat both South Korea and the United States on their road to the gold-medal contest, and the United States recorded two wins over the last gold medalists.
Thursday’s loss sends South Korea to the bronze-medal game against the Dominican Republic. Both medal games will be played on Saturday.
South Korea used five different relievers in a momentum-killing sixth inning. They had scored their first run moments before to pull within one at 2-1.
Mark Kolozsvary, Jack Lopez, and Tyler Austin slashed run-scoring singles and Eddy Alvarez added another run on a fielder’s choice as the U.S. rally built a commanding 7-1 lead.
Seven of the nine U.S. hits were singles, accounting for most of their runs.
The big exception was Jamie Westbrook’s fourth-inning solo home run, which soared to the second deck of seats that had been added to Yokohama Baseball Stadium for the Games, snapping his 0-for-7 slump.
South Korea starter Lee Eui-lee, 19, struck out nine with confounding breaking pitches that dropped U.S. batters to a knee. He left the game with his team trailing 2-1.
The loss denies a shot at second consecutive gold medals for South Korea’s Kim Hyun-soo, the former Baltimore Orioles outfielder, and Kang Min-ho.
The Korean squad has had some late-inning magic during these Games, scoring a total of 18 runs after the fourth inning. On Thursday, that golden rally never came.